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With Curatory Gallery, Ashten McKinney creates an outlet in Waynesville for underrepresented artists

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Matt Peiken | BPR News
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Ashten McKinney converted a former insurance office in Waynesville into the current Curatory Gallery

If you’re looking for forested mountainscape paintings, Teresa Pennington’s gallery in Waynesville is one of this region’s tried and true destinations. A couple blocks away, Ashten McKinney has a mission to cater to other interests.

"People need something else that’s beautiful to look at that’s not mountains that we’re surrounded by,” said Ashten McKinney, the owner and, currently, primary exhibiting artist of Curatory Gallery. They launched the space to promote underrepresented and marginalized creatives.

"I’m not trying to bring Asheville to Waynesville. I don’t live in Asheville for a reason. I like it here,” McKinney said. “It’s not the sleepy town that it was. But there are things I think that are missing that the community wants to see.”

It’s a quiet, sunny midweek morning in Waynesville, and McKinney is giving a tour of the gallery. The tour can’t help but be brief. This used to be an Aflac insurance office—a tiny lobby, back office and a short hallway between them. But McKinney’s large, eclectic paintings animate the space with an edge and urgency not easily found in this town of 10,000 people.

"If I had more cups and little more crafty styles, little gift type of art, I could make a lot more money than I’m making,” they said. "But the work, I think it’s honest because it has more of a story to it, versus just something beautiful to look at on a wall.”

As a young adult in a suburb of Dallas, McKinney earned money as an herbalist and massage therapist and, for a while, owned a wine shop that evolved into an art gallery. They identified more as an event producer than a gallerist and admitted to having little career focus 11 years ago, when they and a partner moved from Texas to Asheville and started a family. They settled in Waynesville five years ago.

McKinney hasn’t formally studied art, but over the past few years, they channeled questions of gender identity into their artwork. Many of McKinney's paintings are rich with colorful, textured metaphor of reaching and climbing, of leaving behind one existence and discovering another.

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Matt Peiken | BPR News
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A few of Ashten McKinney's artworks hanging at Curatory Gallery.

"There’s one, two, three, four, five images of this wall back behind me—that’s my coming-out series,” they said, pointing at paintings hanging next to one another. “In that sequence, it kinda tells a story of that journey.”

McKinney first opened Curatory a few blocks away in spring of 2021, subletting the basement of a garden shop and operating as nighttime gallery. Not every neighbor was thrilled and, after McKinney hosted a drag show there that June, they said the landlord asked Curatory to leave.

"I went over to this wine bar next to me, really just to do another drag show, because I kinda wanted to push some buttons. And walking by, I noticed Aflac had moved out. I was like ‘Oh, there’s a space. I need a space,’” McKinney recalled. “All my stuff was sitting in a U-Haul. Once I saw the space, I was like ‘OK, shift direction.’ I ripped up all the carpets, painted all the walls, changed out the lights and unloaded the truck.”

McKinney strived for monthly exhibitions in the current space, but recognized the layout wasn’t optimal for receptions. The last one was in February, and McKinney is hopeful about moving into yet another space next door. To make ends meet, they work random gigs and keep the gallery open only Friday evenings.

"This is my job, but I’m still trying to figure out how to be an artist, because for the most of it, I’ve focused on events, selling other people’s work,” they said. “And I think, for years, that was in a way invalidating my own work. I’m still trying to figure out how to sell my own work.”

In the meantime, others are validating McKinney’s vision. They relate an anecdote of a queer woman who asked her mother to visit the gallery. The women had been estranged for five years, and McKinney said the gallery was their gateway to reuniting. Also, Morgan Beryl of the Haywood County Arts Council asked McKinney to curate an exhibition at the council’s downtown gallery this past June of queer-identifying artists in the region.

The next event scheduled at Curatory Gallery is a Nov. 20 art auction to fund art supplies in Western North Carolina schools and a high school residency.

"I hardly know what else to do and it always comes back to this. Every time I’ve had to walk away from art, it’s so much loss,” McKinney said. “I like my work, I like to make my work, and when I’m not doing it, I don’t like it as much.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.